Ultra Violence, a book ostensibly about football hooliganism, might seem like an incongruous choice for a middle aged woman. However, this is a book that is about so much more than football and it resonated with me on so many levels.
Mark Barry’s book is set, as is his want, in Nottingham and so vivid are his descriptions of the city, it becomes almost a central character within the story. Anyone who grew up in a northern city in the late 70s and 80s will recognise a way of life that is basically defined by drinking and clubbing. Barry gives us a glimpse of the past when city centres were vibrant hives of humanity rather than the sterile city living environments that are more common now.
Barry structures his novel by interspersing chapters that are set during the recession of the 80s with chapters depicting the current recession. The comparison between the two is stark and serves to show how much has changed in the intervening years. Rather unusually, Barry opts to tell his story in the 2nd person and his protagonist remains nameless throughout. Surprisingly this technique creates a style of conversational intimacy and Barry’s main character comes to represent every man, or perhaps every northern working class man, whose community, hopes and dreams were decimated by Thatcher.
Barry’s homage to the traditional working class family is evident in his warm representation of a father working every hour to provide for his family and a mother whose prime function is to keep the home together. Thus is Barry’s story born, as his protagonist at the age of 13 finds himself the victim of a vicious, unrelenting attack at school. Barry’s description of the attack is unflinching and brutal and is a testament to his skill as a writer. Essentially it is an experience that changes the protagonist’s life forever.
Not long after this, whilst at a football match with his dad, he witnesses the violence of football hooliganism for the first time and is so excited by it he gets an erection. His subconscious need to connect with a violence, that is larger than himself, clearly comes from his sense of disempowerment after the attack at school. He has seen firsthand how violence becomes a living entity in its own right and how being part of a mob changes people. After all, even his own dad advises him, “Son, if you can’t beat them, join them.”
As the young man becomes more immersed in football hooliganism, he finds the sense of identity that he’s missing in a world that is rapidly changing. Hoards of young men, let down by a political system that benefits the wealthy while leaving the masses jobless and hopeless, band together to find structure and purpose in the name of football. Barry constantly refers to the hooliganism as war and, like war; it has its own set of rules and rituals.
It’s inevitable that time marches on and our protagonist and his friends leave hooliganism behind, stepping aside for a new generation of warriors. However, a chance meeting with an old pal coincides with the protagonist’s work life and home life teetering on the brink of implosion. As he feels increasingly emasculated and powerless, he becomes drawn once more to the life he thought he’d left behind.
Barry raises the question of whether violence is indeed part of the human condition. He cleverly invites us to become caught up in the adrenaline fuelled action and then occasionally drip feeds us reminders of the human consequences of the violence. The man almost kicked to death, the student who loses an eye and the hapless passersby forced to witness the bloody horror taking place on their streets in broad daylight.
You might expect the characters in Ultra Violence to be unlikeable thugs but Barry injects them with both pathos and humour, which allows us to take them to our hearts. The novel ends as the men, who have all seen better days, gather for one last battle and there is something gloriously moving about it. This is not simply a book about football but rather a book about politics. The politics of governments that disenfranchise people until they have nothing to lose and the personal politics of men who create their own world and live by their own laws of conduct.